FSU student beats incredible odds to achieve dream of college degree

Carmel Bourjolly

Self-fulfilling prophecies of failure can be easy to buy into, especially for someone growing up in the worst of circumstances.

Failure, however, was never an option for Carmel Bourjolly. The 21-year-old, first-generation Haitian immigrant is graduating this month from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“I wasn’t given a choice to have a normal childhood, but I was blessed to have God put so many angels in my path,” Bourjolly said.

Bourjolly’s mother died when she was 3. She emigrated to America at 5 to live with her stepmother in Fort Pierce, Fla. She hardly ever saw her father. She suffered from depression at an early age and generally felt neglected by the world. She became a ward of the state of Florida at 16 and, from there, had even less social stability.

“I was shuffled in and out of many homes, some were family and some were strangers,” she said.

Despite the odds that were stacked against her, Bourjolly did not waste time feeling sorry for herself. She completed her Associate of Arts degree before she graduated from high school. She also applied for and won a Gates Millennium Scholarship — the first in her high school to do so.

“I found out about the Gates a day and a half before it was due,” she said. “I had to write eight essays with no time for revisions. However, impossible tasks are usually what motivate me.”

A few months after completing the application, she received news from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that she was one of 1,000 recipients for 2012 — out of 24,000 applicants.

“At that moment, I knew I was going to college,” she said. “God blessed me, and the Gates scholarship changed my life forever. It was only the beginning.”

After being accepted at Florida State in 2012, Bourjolly demonstrated the same tenacity in her studies by finishing her coursework in two years. Her final semester was spent interning.

“The most challenging part of my studies has been time management, but I was ready to graduate last semester,” she said.

With extra support received from the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement’s Unconquered Scholars program for students who come from the toughest of circumstances, Bourjolly has thrived at Florida State. In fact, she is the first graduate of the Unconquered Scholars program.

“CARE was important for me to be able to navigate in college,” she said. “Because I am a ward of the state, I received this opportunity and it has been a pleasure having the staff and students as a support group.”

She gave special credit to Kristen Karpinski, her CARE success coach, for providing healthy doses of encouragement to keep her motivated.

“Kristen never gave up on me,” she said. “She genuinely cared and that helped me have confidence in my coursework.”

Bourjolly chose to study psychology in part because of a childhood interest in trying to understand people and the mysteries behind their thoughts and behaviors. In her coursework, she became captivated by the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy, a prediction that comes true because of thoughts and beliefs that affect action.

“I guess this is my favorite theory because there is such deep meaning behind it,” she said.

In addition to her psychology major, Bourjolly minored in criminology. She also spent a semester studying theater at the FSU London Study Centre. She called the experience “life changing.”

“London changed me in ways that I will never be able to explain in words,” she said. “It was beautiful. It showed me that the world was bigger than me, that there is more than Fort Pierce, more than America. It opened my eyes to the world and taught me that I should not slack off when it comes to chasing my dreams.”

Despite her own experiences, Bourjolly’s understanding about what it means to provide for people’s needs has been enhanced through internships she has completed with CARE’s Upward Bound Program, which prepares high school students for college admission, retention and graduation, and the Renaissance Community Center, an organization that serves Tallahassee residents who are experiencing homelessness.

“I plan on one day having the means to provide homes for many homeless children,” she said. “I want to combine artistry with service. I see myself working in the social services and one day owning my own clinic or organization that can help youth with the same challenges that I had. I aspire to one day to fund a scholarship program like Gates that will continue to help others soar.”

With graduate school in her sights, Bourjolly intends to pursue a master’s degree in education or public health.

“My internships confirmed that I find true happiness in helping others,” she said. “The rigors of my coursework taught me that there is no limit to my mind and my abilities. If I want it done, I have the power to do it.”

Back in high school, Bourjolly and her best friend decided to get a jump on college by earning their associate’s degrees. So the two of them sat down and mapped out the work they would have to complete.

“We worked everyday to make it happen,” Bourjolly said. “When I got to college, I followed the same method and I finished my coursework in two years. Once you voice your goals to the universe, it listens.”

Thankfully, Bourjolly never made a prophecy about herself based on her early, rocky years. Instead, she chose to focus on the limitless possibilities of a universe that is listening.